Mike Rounds announced Thursday he will seek a U.S. Senate seat in 2014, ending months of speculation after he formed an exploratory committee in September.
It’s the latest step in a successful political career stretching across two decades, but Rounds said he never actually decided to be a politician.
What has always attracted him, he said, was creating good public policy.
“I enjoyed the policy side of it and the how do we make it work and how do we build a consensus,” Rounds said.
His first taste came while attending South Dakota State University, where he was involved in changing the university’s housing policies. After returning to Pierre, it was the policy decisions of the time, seat belt laws and tax issues, which led him to run for the Legislature.
He served five-terms in the state Senate, from 1991 to 2000, and was the Senate majority leader starting in 1995. He loved looking at the bigger picture of the state’s budget issues and how it impacted people, he said.
“I’ve always been convinced that the state Legislature can do more to help or hurt individuals than about any other organization,” Rounds said.
After reaching the Legislature’s term limit, he considered running for governor, but held out to support then-candidate John Thune. Even after Thune ran for the U.S. Senate instead, he still initially decided not to run.
But the decision left him feeling sick and miserable until friends, his wife and his father finally convinced him to give it a try, despite entering the race late with no preparation.
The 2002 Republican primary was a three-way race that featured a contentious battle between Mark Barnett and Steve Kirby. Rounds said he chose to focus on policy instead of attacking two men he knew and worked with.
Candidates can argue over issues and tactics, he said, but it shouldn’t stoop to personal attacks. It’s a point of pride for him that he has never used a competitor’s name in a campaign ad.
“I don’t understand why you have to tear down some one else who just wants the same job you want,” Rounds said.
His campaign was too poor to afford polling, so he couldn’t measure how well his approach was working. On election night he threw a pot-luck party to say “we’re glad the campaign is over and we can get on with life,” when results started showing him in the lead, he said.
Rounds ended up winning the primary handily and then edged out Democrat Jim Abbott in the general election. He was sworn in as South Dakota’s 31st governor on Jan. 7, 2003. A second term followed in 2006.
He said the hardest part of being governor was the emotional side, in particular military funerals and send-offs. Rounds recalled the first ceremony he attended in 2003 to send National Guardsmen to Iraq was a very personal and close experience.
“You shake their hands and you realize that some are young men and women who literally had been with my kids at my house playing Nintendo,” he said.
Among his successes, Rounds counts keeping Ellsworth Air Force Base, obtaining funding for the Sanford Underground Research Facility, and the University Center going into Sioux Falls. He’s also proud of growth in the business community such as announced turkey and beef processing plants in Huron and Aberdeen, respectively, and a rise in employment.
After a couple years focusing on his insurance and real estate business, Rounds said he decided to get back into politics because he simply doesn’t like the course the country is taking.
The challenge for the U.S. should be creating more jobs so more people are able to have the American dream, and he falls into the camp that says government should protect the country and make sure the private sector can create jobs, he said.
In that vein, Rounds said he wants to look at reforming the tax code, saving social security and Medicaid and changing unsustainable government spending.
So far there seems to be a lot of talk and not a lot of action when it comes to actually fixing problems, he said.
“I would rather be a part of a generation that leaves a legacy that says we saw the problems, and we made plans to fix the problems and we follow through with that,” he said.